The railway was the Victorians’ internet, speeding up communications, formerly dependent on horses and sail, and bringing in its wake the telegraph and global communications. But the railway also acted as a route out of a life of farm labouring for Victorian men, offering new, sometimes better paid but certainly more secure job opportunities.
Pillaton, a parish next to the Tamar just north of Saltash, was not far from the main railway line opened in 1859. This linked the existing West Cornwall Railway from Penzance to Truro with the Great Western Railway radiating out from London. Richard Jane was growing up in Pillaton village in the 1850s and was no doubt aware of the construction of this line, if only from local gossip about the navvies building it. Nonetheless, in 1861 he’d been packed off to a nearby farm to work as a farm servant.
It’s not clear when Richard left the farm for the railway, but when he reappeared in the historical record in 1881 he was a GWR signalman at Wolborough in Devon, having in the meantime married Emily Beer from Kingskerswell in that county in 1875. Usually, boys would be taken on by the railway companies at around the age of 14 as either a porter or as a signal learner. After passing a ‘strict’ eye test they would learn the job by shadowing a permanent signalman. Before railway unionisation improved things, the average pay of a signalman in the 1870s was around 16 shillings a week, not that much higher than a farm labourer and with long and what would now be called unsocial hours. But the job was regular and a signalman could hope to progress to busier lines and consequently higher wages.
Indeed, by 1891 Richard seems to have reached the dizzy heights of being a GWR inspector according to the census. That was either temporary, or the census misleads us, as he was returned again as a more mundane signalman in the Edwardian censuses. By that time, he and Emily were living at Mutley in Plymouth, not far from the city’s main station at North Road, opened in 1877.
Also living in Plymouth in 1901 was the only other Pillaton-born person in the Victorian Lives database. Like Richard Jane, Edmund Fowell’s father was a farm labourer and Edmund was a young farm servant in 1861. However, Edmund’s grandfather had been a carpenter and perhaps this helped him gain his carpentry skills. By the 1870s Edmund was working as a carpenter and married to Mary Hawke from Landulph. The pair brought up their eight children in Mary’s home parish before moving a mile or so to the neighbouring parish of Botusfleming in the late 1880s.
Their stay in Plymouth looks to have been temporary, as Edmund was described in 1901 as a carpenter ‘on extension works’. This may be referring to the expansion of the North Yard, formerly known as the Steam Yard, at Keyham, a project that wasn’t completed until 1907. Although Edmund, now widowed, was back home in Pillaton by 1911, for both him and Richard Jane, proximity to Plymouth and its railway and dockyards had offered alternatives to the farm labouring lives of their fathers.